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Editorial

A jumbo conundrum

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Thursday 27th August, 2020

Indian Congress leader Sonia Gandhi has outfoxed a group of party rebels who reportedly strove to oust her. She has had herself appointed the Congress Interim Leader pending a party overhaul. She seems to have taken a leaf out of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s book. Having thus battened down the hatches, both Sonia and Ranil are waiting for political storms to blow over. They are adept at political escapology.

Many are those who aspire to the post of UNP leader. Some of them have tossed their hats in the ring, and prominent among them is former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who endeared himself to average UNPers by standing up to President Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa and foiling their attempt to capture power in Parliament, in late 2018. He is also the darling of the western members of the international community and a section of the Maha Sangha.

Wickremesinghe has reportedly said Jayasuriya, who is not a member of the UNP Working Committee, cannot be the party leader. Several prominent Buddhist monks are cranking up pressure on Wickremesinghe to appoint Jayasuriya the party leader. Theirs is an exercise in futility, we reckon.

One may recall that four Mahanayake Theras jointly wrote to Wickremesinghe, in December 2011, urging him to settle the UNP’s leadership struggle by appointing Jayasuriya the party leader. The signatories to the letter were Mahanayake of the Malwatte Chapter Most Ven. Tibbotuwawe Sri Siddhartha Thera, Mahanayake of the Asgiriya Chapter Most Ven. Udugama Rathanapala Buddharakkhitha Thera, Mahanayake of the Ramanna Chapter Most Ven. Weveldeniya Madhalankkara Thera and Mahanayake of the Amarapura Chapter Most Ven. Dauldena Gnanissara Thera. But Wickremesinghe did not accede to their request. (However, he, to his credit, brought down the mighty Rajapaksa government and became the Prime Minister four years later.) It is therefore highly unlikely that Wickremesinghe will heed appeals from lesser monks.

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa’s silence is puzzling. With 54 SJB MPs and the majority of the UNP’s rank and file on his side, he is now in a position to smash through the weakened defences of Wickremesinghe, unlike in the past. In fact, that is what the SJB kept saying before the recent general election. Its heavyweights vowed to march on Sirikotha and get rid of the Ranil faction, first thing after the polls. Why are they holding back? Is Sajith waiting till the UNP rolls out the red carpet for him? One of his trusted lieutenants, MP Nalin Bandara Jayamaha, has said the UNP should stop looking for ‘antiques’ (meaning aged politicians) to lead it as the rightful heir to its leadership is in the SJB.

Sajith is apparently in two minds. His party, the SJB, is strong and the UNP is lying supine with no prospect of regaining its former self in the foreseeable future. But a seasoned politician, Sajith cannot be unaware of the political reality. The SJB has fared reasonably well electorally as a newly formed party, but it will have its work cut out to keep its support base intact in case of the revival and revitalisation of the UNP under a new leader; it will lose a sizeable chunk of its vote bank to the UNP in such an eventuality. At the recent parliamentary polls, a majority of traditional supporters of the UNP voted for the SJB as they wanted to punish the UNP leadership and not the party; many of those who did so are likely to back the UNP again under a new leader.

Sajith has said it took a couple of years for the SLPP to emerge a formidable political force, but the SJB has done so within a couple of months. However, the fact remains that the SLPP has become an established political party with a solid vote bank, and the SLFP has chosen to play second fiddle to it because of the former’s popular and strong leadership and strength. The SLFP would have been in the same predicament as the UNP if it had gone it alone at the parliamentary polls instead of riding piggyback on the SLPP. The SLPP has consolidated its power by winning three elections in a row—local government, presidential and parliamentary—with huge majorities. The same cannot be said of the SJB. Most of all, the UNP cannot be written off.

Sajith must be finding it difficult to make up his mind. But he will have to decide soon.



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Editorial

Diyawanna battles

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Friday 23rd April, 2021

Parliamentary sessions, at times, can be far more entertaining than cable TV programmes like Animal Fight Club. On Wednesday, our honourable MPs almost came to blows during a debate on the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the alleged instances of political victimisation under the previous government. The Opposition accused the government of having adopted an ad hoc method to open an escape route for the SLPP MPs and supporters with court cases against them.

The SJB argued, in Parliament on Wednesday, that all 90 cases mentioned in the PCoI report could not be considered instances of political victimisation as they had been filed by the person, who currently holds the post of Chief Justice, when he was the Attorney General. Its line of reasoning has left us puzzled. The SJB’s argument is apparently based on the assumption that the legality of actions taken by an Attorney General who goes on to become the Chief Justice cannot be challenged. But one may recall that in 2018 the Supreme Court rejected all arguments that the person, who is the current Chief Justice, put forth, in his capacity as the Attorney General, in defence of the then President Maithripala Sirisena, who sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and formed a new government with Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister, before dissolving Parliament, unable to muster a simple majority therein. The UNF government was reinstated, and, interestingly, the following year the Attorney General, whose defence of the presidential actions did not stand up to judicial scrutiny, became the Chief Justice. The rest is history.

That the SJB’s argument at issue is flawed cannot, however, be used to justify the government’s claim that all those against whom the aforesaid cases were filed during the yahapalana government have been politically victimised.

Political victimisation is part of Sri Lanka’s rotten political culture. Many people have been politically victimised under successive governments, and they need redress. The yahapalana government also manipulated the police and the Attorney General’s Department to compass its political ends while claiming to be on a mission to restore the rule of law and usher in good governance. But the fact remains that after every regime change, lawbreakers in the garb of government MPs pretend to be victims of political witch-hunts and some of them succeed in having their cases terminated. The Opposition is, therefore, right in having challenged some decisions of the PCoI on political victimisation although the arguments it has put forth to bolster its position are specious.

Meanwhile, among those affected by political victimisation are two former Heads of the Judiciary—Dr. Shirani Bandaranayke and Mohan Peiris. The impeachment that led to the ouster of Dr. Bandaranayake in 2013 was politically motivated. The then Rajapaksa government got rid of her because it considered her an impediment to its political project which it sought to have legitimised judicially. Two years later, the yahapalana government righted the wrong, but the method it employed for that purpose was wrong. Instead of having Parliament correct what it had done to her, it had President Sirisena reinstate her by ‘vapourising’ Chief Justice Peiris. The presidential decree that Dr. Bandaranayke’s removal was unlawful; the post of the Chief Justice had not fallen vacant and, therefore the appointment of Peiris as the head of the judiciary was null and void ab initio, made an already bad situation worse. The yahapalana government should have taken action against either Peiris or former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who appointed him the Chief Justice or both of them, if it had really believed in its claim that he (Peiris) had been functioning as the Chief Justice unlawfully; that was the only way it could have justified the defenestration of Peiris. There were reports that some yahapalana goons had threatened him to resign.

Justice Minister Ali Sabry recently declared in Parliament that the removal of Peiris as the Chief Justice had been illegal, and promised to take remedial action. This issue, too, should be debated in Parliament.

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Editorial

Carnage and boru shows

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Thursday 22nd April, 2021

The Opposition MPs attended Parliament, wearing black, yesterday, when the second anniversary of the Easter Sunday terror attacks fell; their ruling party counterparts wore black armbands, instead. Did they do so as a sign of sympathy and condolence, or by way of a political statement? Christians traditionally wear black while in mourning, but when aggressive men who resort to fisticuffs, at the drop of a hat, wear black, they look minatory. How frightening Parliament would have looked if those with a history of throwing projectiles and chilli powder at their political rivals in the House and even threatening the Chair had also been dressed in black?

The members of both sides did not care to behave themselves at least on the day when the country remembered the victims of the Easter Sunday tragedy. They invaded the Well of the House, yesterday, trading obscenities, according to media reports. What a way to remember the dead!

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) which probed the Easter Sunday attacks has held the yahapalana government including the President (Maithripala Sirisena) and the Prime Minister (Ranil Wickremesinghe) accountable for the tragedy. Most of the current Opposition MPs were in that administration at the time of the carnage (2019), and, therefore, cannot absolve themselves of the blame for the serious lapses that made the terror strikes possible. The fact that they have left the UNP, which was in power at the time, does not help diminish their culpability.

If the former UNF MPs currently in the Opposition think they can pull the wool over the eyes of the public with the help of gimmicks such as wearing black, they are mistaken. The least they can do to diminish their guilt, if at all, is to tender a public apology for their failure to heed the warnings of attacks and ensure public safety in 2019. Some of the maimed victims have said they have been forgotten, and the former yahapalana MPs are duty bound to take up cudgels for these hapless people they failed to protect.

The government grandees, who made a comeback by flogging the issue of the Easter Sunday terror and promising to punish the perpetrators thereof, also cannot dupe the public by bellowing empty rhetoric and wearing black armbands. They have to fulfil their promise at issue while granting relief to the terror victims. A small girl who suffered injury in the bomb attack on the Zion Church, Batticaloa, on 19 April 2019, is in need of funds to have her eyesight restored. Her family cannot afford the cost of surgery. So, the government MPs ought to reach out and help such victims. Boru shows won’t do.

Most of all, everything possible must be done to ensure that there will be no more terror attacks. There is no guarantee that the country is safe, for the masterminds behind the Easter carnage have not been identified. So long as they are at large, threats will persist and nobody will be safe. The incumbent government is full of politicians who brag that terrorism will not be allowed to raise its ugly head again, on their watch. True, they were instrumental in defeating northern terror, but let them be advised not to be cocky. It is said that terrorists only have to be lucky once, and their targets have to be lucky always.

The general consensus is that the government cannot summon the political moxie to go all out to have the masterminds behind the Easter Sunday attacks traced because it does not want any more problems to contend with on the diplomatic front; it is also accused of having cut secret deals with some politicians with links to extremists to muster a two-thirds majority in Parliament and secure votes at future elections. It will have a hard time trying to prove its critics wrong.

Only a fresh probe into the Easter Sunday tragedy will help find out who handled Zahran and Naufer. If the government fails to reveal the truth, the SLPP will have its MPs occupying the Opposition benches in the next Parliament, fully dressed in black, which, in our book, is the colour of failure and duplicity, where Sri Lankan politicians are concerned.

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Editorial

April carnage and murky waters

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Wednesday 21st April, 2021

A series of near-simultaneous terrorist bombings shocked the country on this day, two years ago. More than 250 persons including children perished in the attacks, which also left hundreds of others injured. It is equally shocking that no one has yet been punished for those heinous crimes and the masterminds behind the attacks have not been identified. The government would have the public believe that an extremist preacher named Naufer masterminded the attacks, but there is no credible evidence to prove its claim. True, Naufer indoctrinated the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) cadres and had some influence over Zahran, who led the suicide bombers, but he, too, is believed to have had a handler.

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday attacks, has unearthed some valuable information about the incidents, but much more remains to be done. It has held the then President Maithripala Sirisena and the yahapalana government responsible for the serious security lapses that enabled the NTJ terrorists to strike with ease. It has also recommended legal action against several police and intelligence officers who failed to act on repeated warnings. It should have named the members of the yahapalana Cabinet and recommended that they also be prosecuted.

Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith must have struck a responsive chord with all right-thinking Sri Lankans, on Monday, when he said, some political deals that helped the government secure a two-thirds majority in Parliament for the 20th Amendment may have influenced the outcome of the Easter Sunday carnage probe. ‘He that has an ill name’ is said to be half-hanged; the present-day leaders have earned notoriety for political horse-trading, and it is only natural that they stand accused of having cut secret deals with those with alleged links to the Easter Sunday terrorists.

The government is in a dilemma. Pressure is mounting on it to initiate legal action against Sirisena. The SLFP is likely to pull out of the ruling SLPP coalition if Sirisena is prosecuted; such a breakaway will threaten the stability of the government to a considerable extent and, therefore, the SLPP is not in a position to throw Sirisena to the wolves. How will the government wriggle out of this catch-22 situation?

Legal action can be instituted, on the basis of the PCoI findings and recommendations, against those whose dereliction of duty and criminal negligence helped the NTJ terrorists destroy so many lives, but the country will not be safe unless the real masterminds behind the attacks are traced and dealt with. The PCoI has not dug deep enough in this regard as can be seen from the perfunctory manner in which it has treated the alleged foreign involvement in the Easter Sunday terror attacks. The bulky PCoI report has only eight pages on this vital issue, and the views of key witnesses who suspect a foreign hand have been rejected as mere ipse dixits. These witnesses, according to the PCoI report, are Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, former President Maithripala Sirisena, former Minister Rauff Hakeem, former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, former Governor Asath Salley, Mujeebur Rahuman, MP, former Director SIS SDIG Nilantha Jayawardene, former Commandant of the STF SDIG M. R. Latiff, former Chief of Defence Staff Admiral (retd.) Ravindra Wijegunaratne, Senior DIG/CID, Ravi Senevirathne (retired) and former CID Director SSP Shani Abeysekera. So, if a fresh probe gets underway to identify the terror masterminds, the aforesaid witnesses will be able to furnish more information.

The Easter Sunday carnage should be investigated from all angles. The PCoI report says Zahran’s original plan was to attack the Kandy Perahera, but it was advanced due to the detection of explosives in Wanathawilluwa, international factors such as the IS losing ground in Syria and Iraq, and Zahran’s fear that he might be apprehended. It needs to be found out whether there was an attempt to use the NTJ terror to trigger a backlash against the Muslim community and drive the Muslims, especially those in the strategically important Eastern Province, into the hands of the separatists, or other such elements bent on destabilising the country.

 

 

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